Riding a wave of wins during awards season, The Artist captured the ultimate prize Sunday night when it was named best picture at the 84th annual Academy Awards.

The black-and-white silent film homage won five Oscars altogether, including best direction for writer-director Michel Hazanavicius and best actor for its star, Jean Dujardin. It is the first silent film to triumph since Wings won at the inaugural Oscar ceremony in 1929.

"I am the happiest director in the world right now. Thank you for that," Hazanavicius said as he accepted his directing trophy. "Ever since this movie has been made, life has been full of grace and joy and happiness."

Dujardin beat out Hollywood heavyweights including George Clooney and Brad Pitt for the best actor prize, becoming the first French actor to win the honour.

"In 1929, it wasn’t Billy Crystal, but

[silent screen star] Douglas Fairbanks hosting that first Oscar ceremony. Tickets cost $5 and it lasted 15 minutes ...Thank you, Douglas Fairbanks," he said, expressing gratitude to the Hollywood pioneer for helping make his remarkable success possible.

In The Artist, Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent film idol who sees his star fade as talking pictures are introduced and who is upstaged by the beautiful ingenue he once aided. Audiences virtually never hear from Dujardin in the film.

"So many of you here tonight have inspired me," the French actor said in halting English. "If George Valentin could speak, he would say, 'Wow! Merci beaucoup! Genial! Formidable!"'

The Artist also won the Oscar for costume design and its composer, Ludovic Bource, won for his original score. He found time to embrace or shake hands with his fellow nominees, including Canadian Howard Shore, before taking the stage to accept his trophy.

The night's other big winner was Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which cleaned up the categories for visual and sound achievements. The 3D children's adventure, which started Sunday with the most Oscar nominations, earned the evening's first two trophies — cinematography and art direction — before later going on to win for sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.

With each acceptance speech, the winners thanked director Scorsese, who beamed happily from the front few rows at the Hollywood & Highland Center (formerly known as the Kodak Theatre).

Streep, Plummer honoured

Hollywood stalwart Meryl Streep was named best actress for her turn as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Though the most nominated actor in Academy Award history (a contender 17 times over), Streep's third Oscar win Sunday night was met with a standing ovation.

"I want to thank all my colleagues and all my friends. I see my life before my eyes: my old friends, my new friends," said Streep, whose last Oscar came in 1982 for Sophie's Choice.

"The thing that counts the most with me is the friendships, the love, the sheer joy we have making movies … For this inexplicably wonderful career, thank you so much."

In addition to a teary appreciation of her husband, Don Gummer, Streep also thanked her other longtime partner, J. Roy Helland, who has served as her makeup artist on every movie for nearly four decades. Earlier in the evening, Helland was an Oscar-winner himself, sharing the best make-up win with Mark Coulier for their much-praised transformation of Streep in The Iron Lady.

"Thanks Meryl, for keeping me employed for the last 37 years," Helland said.

'When I emerged from my mother's womb, I was already rehearsing my Academy thank-you speech'—Christopher Plummer

Canadian icon Christopher Plummer became the oldest performer to win an acting Oscar, scoring his first-ever Academy Award for his turn in Beginners. Playing a widower who comes out and embraces his homosexuality, Plummer, 82, won best supporting actor and received a standing ovation from the Hollywood crowd.

"You're only two years older than me darling, where have you been all my life?" he told his Oscar statuette.

"When I emerged from my mother's womb, I was already rehearsing my Academy thank-you speech. But it was so long ago, mercifully for you I've forgotten it. But I haven't forgotten who to thank," he quipped before acknowledging his fellow nominees, Beginners director Mike Mills, co-star Ewan McGregor and his family.

After winning supporting-actor honours at numerous other award shows — most recently Saturday’s Indie Spirit Awards —Plummer had been widely tipped to win the corresponding Oscar.

Two other favourites of the film-awards season also left with Academy Awards Sunday night. The drama A Separation was named best foreign-language film, beating out Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar and Canadian co-production In DarknessA Separation is the first movie from Iran to win an Oscar in the category and writer-director Asghar Farhadi dedicated his win to the Iranian people.

Octavia Spencer added the supporting actress Oscar to the previous trophies she has won for her turn as a brash black maid and gifted cook in the civil rights-era drama The Help. 

"Thank you, Academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room," the actress said as she took the stage for a tearful thank you statement.

Laughs on the red carpet and onstage

As promised, an extravagantly dressed Sacha Baron Cohen made a scene on the red carpet. The Hugo co-star arrived in character as a faux Middle Eastern despot — a stunt for his upcoming film The Dictator and a brand of publicity the British comedian and actor previously used for films such as Borat and Bruno.

Accompanied by two women bearing flowers, Baron Cohen claimed to be carrying an urn holding the ashes of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, whose face was displayed on the container. After an interview with E! host Ryan Seacrest, Baron Cohen spilled the ashes onto the American Idol host and radio personality's tuxedo. Security then muscled Baron Cohen away.

Show producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer vowed comedy would play a part in Sunday night's broadcast, which saw the return of Billy Crystal to the Oscar stage. He emceed the awards for a ninth time, deciding to step in with Grazer and Mischer in late 2011 after the exit of original show producer Brett Ratner and host Eddie Murphy.

After a brief intro from Morgan Freeman, Crystal kicked off the show with one of his Oscar trademarks: a sequence where he appears in scenes from the various nominated films. The skit ranged from spoofs of The Artist, The Descendants and Moneyball to a bit from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and even an appearance by Canadian pop star Justin Bieber targeted to a younger demographic. He also offered a musical tribute to the best-picture finalists.

However, the evening proved fairly tame, though several presenters — including actors Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone and the cast of Bridesmaids — inspired moments of laughter.

The evening, which clocked in at just over three hours, also included a high-flying, cinema-inspired performance by the Cirque du Soleil that had Hollywood's famous faces craning their necks to catch the aerial acrobatics, a montage of film industry figures who died over the past year and tributes to honorary Oscar-winners James Earl Jones, makeup artist Dick Smith and media personality Oprah Winfrey.

With files from The Associated Press